The Power of Language

Irrespective of your discipline, you need to attend to the shifts in academic and public discourse.

April 3, 2022

Stories about the campus language police are a staple of the conservative-leaning press. There, you’ll read about a University of Washington language guide created by the campus’s information technology department that describes the words “grandfather” and “housekeeping” as problematic. How so? Because of the former term’s association with the infamous “grandfather clause” that exempted some whites from voting restrictions in the South; the latter, because it “feels gendered.”

Then there’s Brandeis’s oppressive language list, which warned the campus not to use words or phrases including “picnic,” “rule of thumb,” “homeless person” or even “trigger warning”—which the school’s Prevention, Advocacy and Resource Center claimed had “roots, histories and/or current usage that can serve to reinforce systems of oppression” and had violent or gendered connotations.

Insensitive use of language, the guides explain, can wound or cause stress or hurt to those who have been “impacted by violence” or bias, while alternative word choices can “promote [a] more inclusive campus.”

The noted linguist John McWhorter and the author Joyce Carol Oates were not alone in likening the “ultra-woke” to commissars engaged in thought control who contributed to a culture of censorship. And yet it is also the case that words can indeed cause harm, normalize violence, contribute to stigma, trivialize relationship violence, invalidate feelings and marginalize groups of people or strip them of agency.

Words have become weapons in the culture war, and language itself has become an arena of cultural and political conflict. But don’t be a passive bystander: discussion of the politics of language deserves a place in our classrooms.

Words and grammar, of course, are constantly in flux, but today, more than the past, words, which we often think of as having transparent, consensual meaning, are now subject to politicized debate. For example, is a border wall a fence or an apartheid barrier?

Words are not simply descriptive, nor merely a way to materialize concepts. Words can actively influence understanding and perceptions, as figures as diverse as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Kenneth Burke and Benjamin Lee Whorf have argued. Little wonder that language has become a site of contestation.

Words can recognize and valorize previously marginalized identities. Language can also subvert certain common but previously unrecognized biases. Yet words can also obfuscate. Just ask yourself: Is the term “sexual assault” a more or less accurate substitute for “rape”?

Recent years have witnessed the publication of a slew of books with “keywords” in the title. There’s Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-Capitalist Struggle, which argues that “the capacity to name has … self-evident liberatory power.” There’s also Political Keywords: A Guide for Students, Activists and Everyone Else, which describes a series of commonly misused and dangerously vague terms that are used to “spin disputed ideas or justify questionable actions.”

Then there’s a series of Keywords for African American Studies; American Cultural Studies; Children’s Literature; Comics Studies; Environmental, Gender and Sexuality Studies; and Media Studies—all inspired by Raymond Williams’s 1976 classic Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, which documented semantic changes in language that reflect shifts in the social and power relations of production and cultural values.

We are in the midst of a self-conscious process of resignification. Neologisms proliferate, with new gender pronouns perhaps the most obvious innovations. An especially noteworthy and revealing word is “gaslight,” which means to manipulate, create an alternate reality or unsettle an obvious truth.

Yet something larger is going on than a dispute about whether or not to speak of “pregnant persons.” I would submit that we are experiencing a fundamental shift in discourse.

This shift is manifest in:

Discourse analysis—the study of the uses of language in particular social contexts and how terminology, concepts and labels are institutionalized and become instruments of power, understanding and persuasion—is now central not only to the fields of semiotics, psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics, but across the humanities and in many of the social sciences.

Words are, of course, enablers of human thought, keys to communication and instruments of understanding. Our ability to conceive of complex concepts depends on words. Words can also be weapons and can shape our perception of reality. As Wittgenstein put it in his 1922 Tractatus logigo-philosphicus, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

Let me suggest three ways that diverse fields of study would benefit from a better understanding of discourse.

  • Shifts in word usage, meaning and epistemology: By tracing the etymology of the terminology of Christian morality, Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1887 On the Genealogy of Morality revealed that far from being timeless moral truths, moral precepts were the products of particular historical circumstances. Etymology is, in many respects, a record not only of shifting social values but ever-changing social realities. John Patrick Leary’s Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism show how the 21st-century economic marketplace gave birth to a series of new words that are now applied far outside the economic realm, including terms like “empowerment,” “wellness,” “synergy” and “flexibility.”
  • The ambiguous and contested character of language: Not only is language fluid, but words’ meaning is often contested. As such scholars as Eric Foner and Daniel T. Rodgers have observed, the keywords of American politics—above all, the words “rights” and “freedom”—exert enormous power but are also floating signifiers that can be invoked on behalf of many contradictory arguments.
  • Verbal response modes: Our communication style colors the ways that our messages are received. It’s not just a matter of tone—patronizing, disdainful, supercilious or snooty—or of volume—yelling, bellowing or barking—that prompts negative reactions. So, too, do one’s “verbal response modes”—one’s directness, presumptiveness or attentiveness.

Many of our classes contain contrasting discourse styles that can provoke discomfort or awkwardness. I’ll always recall how, at Columbia, some students found a fairly typically New York City speaking style—rapid-fire and in one’s face—disconcerting and even hostile.

Although recent shifts in discourse are usually linked to the political left, the fact is that discursive shifts occur with surprising frequency and rest upon underlying societal transformations. Every college instructor knows that the discourse of college teaching has undergone a profound transformation in recent years, driven by the learning sciences and a host of advocates and reformers. Even those who claim to know little or nothing about pedagogy now use a vocabulary drawn from the scholarship of teaching and learning. We speak of learning objectives, 21st-century competencies or literacies, critical thinking, Bloom’s taxonomy, and so forth.

Some shifts in discourse are seismic. Consider the shifts that took place:

  • In the late 18th century, when a new vocabulary spread that helped to justify revolution, including constitutionalism, natural rights and republicanism.
  • In the early 19th century, which the rise of a new industrial order and the emergence of the modern nation state resulted in the proliferation of such words as “class,” “exploitation,” “individualism,” “nationalism,” “the reformatory” and “scientist.”
  • In the early 20th century, when a discourse inspired in the United States, by progressivism, and in Europe, by social democratic thought arose, including such new terms as “children’s rights,” “feminism” and “the welfare state.”
  • Beginning in the 1920s and accelerating after World War II, when the psychoanalytic language, with terms like “anal retentive,” “defense mechanisms,” “displacement,” “masochism,” “narcissistic” and “projection” were embraced.

Words, we are quite rightly told, possess power. They have “the ability to help, to heal, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.” Words can also inspire, motivate and encourage. As Proverbs 18:21 puts it, “The tongue has the power of life and death.”

As another writer has observed, “Words cannot change reality, but they can change how people perceive reality.”

Given the power of words, we should certainly speak and write mindfully. Choose your words wisely.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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